Friday, April 04, 2008

HBO's John Adams Bummer

I initially had high hopes for HBO's John Adams miniseries, an adaptation of David McCullough's excellent biography of the stout and certain little man who was to be our nation's second President. Sadly, the first couple episodes haven't exactly inspired me to want to bother with the final 5.

The first episode of the series, largely a demonstration of Adams' iron-willed commitment to the rule of law ("a government of laws, not of men," said he), isn't all bad. Paul Giamatti, the go-to for stout and portly roles, portrays Adams with competence if not much else. When appropriate, which the producers seem to have thought often, his eyes grow suitably misty at thoughts or speeches conveying justice, liberty and other self-evident truths.

Joining Giamatti in teary-eyed semblance is Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. A good deal of the success of McCullough's biography came from his powerful, expansive portrayal of Abigail Adams-- of her fierce intelligence and the political acumen of the council her husband (and Thomas Jefferson, among others) relied on--here, at least in the first couple episodes, she's regulated to uttering maxims and sharing her husbands bouts of lachrymosity. Linney, a better and more nuanced actor then Giamatti, does well with her cameos, but the series as a whole is devoted to our founding fathers. Linney's Abigail dispenses wisdom, scrubs floors and stares off into meaningful horizons while tending to the children and homestead.

Another check against the series comes from an abundance of fussy and downright goofy camera angles. The series' cinematographers (Danny Cohen and Tak Fujimoto, according to IMDb) fuss with the introductory framing of numerous scenes, placing the actors on oddly tilting floors, or as viewed through the spikes of a fence, the crease of a curtain or the partitions of a window, all of which has the jarring effect of calling attention to itself. "Look," it seems to say, "these were very topsy-turvy times, were they not? And, look, here we find ourselves catching a sneak of Abigail and John reading behind the curtains of their bed!" You might as well have had Linney reach up and grab the boom mic while they were at it. It's a pretty glaring intrusion on the narrative and any suspension of disbelief.

Still, Stephen Dillane's Thomas Jefferson is pretty great--both otherworldly and wise. And Sarah Polley arrives somewhere over the course of the remaining 5 episodes as the adult Abigail "Nabby" Adams, smallpox-inoculation-gone-terribly-astray-survivor and daughter of John and Abby. Neither, though, are probably enough to bring me back for any more servings.

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